Mass Movie Appeal
From P.V. to L.A., screenwriter/producer Mark Mallouk’s star is on the rise with two critically acclaimed movies in theaters this month: the “Whitey” Bulger biopic Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp; and Everest.
Born and raised in Prairie Village, Mark Mallouk never imagined he would end up writing and producing mainstream Hollywood movies garnering Oscar buzz.
We’re talking about the current hit movies, Black Mass (Warner Bros.), starring Johnny Depp at his creepiest best, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Joel Edgerton, Peter Sarsgaard and Dakota Johnson; and Everest (Universal Pictures), starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightly, Robin Wright, Jason Clarke, Sam Worthington and Josh Brolin. Both movies were highlights at the Venice Film Festival in September. In fact, Everest opened it.
“When I was a young kid and I dreamed, it was about getting a three-pointer for KU during the Final Four,” says Mallouk, an affable 42-year-old in a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he now calls home. “So I don’t think it’s in my DNA necessarily” to be in the film industry.
But knee-deep he is, this graduate of Curé of Ars Catholic grade school, Rockhurst High School and The University of Kansas, where he earned degrees in economics, psychology and human development.
Mallouk knew he wanted to live in L.A., so after KU, he moved there to get a master’s degree in business administration at Pepperdine University.
“I just wanted to move to California and frankly, I thought going to grad school was a way to do it without giving my parents a heart attack,” says Mallouk, whose father, Alexander, is a Saint Luke’s Hospital internist and mother, Carmen, is a homemaker. “I look at the 22-year-old Mark who made that decision and sort of shake my head.”
After grad school, he decided to pursue writing and enrolled in the Professional Program in Screenwriting at the UCLA Graduate School of Theater, Film and Television. The films The Shawshank Redemption and The Natural were the catalysts. To Mallouk, both movies beautifully captured the triumph of the human spirit. After he saw them, he applied at the film school, a career path he hadn’t considered before.
“They were reshowing them here for some reason,” Mallouk recalls. “I saw them back-to-back, and I remember walking home and going, ‘Ah, that’s it. I’m not looking back.’”
While at film school, he wrote a crime drama called Somerset Square — named for the street he grew up on — which was optioned by producer Brian Oliver. The two men struck up a fast friendship. It was ultimately that script that led Oliver to hire Mallouk to write Black Mass, based on the 2001 book by Boston Globe investigative reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob.
Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper (he also directed the 2009 Academy Award-winning Crazy Heart) tells the story of notorious psychopath, killer and Boston crime boss James J. “Whitey” Bulger, who became an FBI informant and used this status to eliminate criminal competition during the 1970s through the early ’90s. Although he cultivated a Robin Hood persona, ultimately he was revealed as a supreme narcissist who excelled at self-preservation to the detriment of others.
Bulger, 86, who is played by Depp in the film, is currently imprisoned for life at the United States Penitentiary Coleman II in Sumterville, Florida, after living on the lam for 16 years and landing on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. He was eventually caught in 2011 in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 81 and found guilty in 2013 on 31 counts, including those for racketeering and 11 murders.
Mallouk recalls getting the gig to write the script. He walked into Oliver’s office, who was just finishing up a phone call in which he just closed the right to produce the film version of Black Mass.
“Brian asked me, ‘Have you ever heard of Whitey Bulger?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ I remember him pushing the book across the desk. And I’m like, ‘All right.’ I went home that night and read it. I had heard of Whitey but I didn’t know the scope, the enormity of the story. I read the first 80 pages and thought, ‘How has this not been made into a movie yet?’
“I remember coming in the next day and saying, ‘This is what I think it should be. This is what I think I can do with it.’ We were very much in lock step after that point. He said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”
Using the book as a baseline to work from, Mallouk also met with the authors, who introduced him to key people in the story, like federal prosecutors, and told him information that wasn’t in the book. He condensed key points in Bulger’s life for dramatic effect, paying heed to the emotional consequences of his life without romanticizing them. The script was co-written by Jez Butterworth, who came in right before the film’s production to add some interrogation scenes.
Mallouk came away from the film, which has among its many executive producers his twin brother, Ray, and older brother, Peter, with a definite distaste for Bulger.
“Whitey was a terrible person,” he says. “Reckless. He didn’t just destroy the lives of the people he killed, but families in the community.”
His Robin Hood image was completely unearned, Mallouk says, noting, “I certainly wasn’t going to contribute to it. I wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror afterwards.”
Mallouk says he was “over the moon” that Depp was cast as Bulger. “I didn’t allow myself to believe it for a while,” he says.
For Everest, Mallouk acted as an executive producer, along with several others including his brother Peter. He liked the idea behind the 1996 true story of a climbing expedition on Mt. Everest devastated by a severe snow storm that led to the deaths of several climbers. It focuses on the summit and survival attempts of two expedition groups, one led by Scott Fisher, played by Gyllenhaal, and one led by Rob Hall, played by Jason Clarke.
Survival stories intrigue people, Mallouk says.
“Its’ something in our DNA,” he says. “It’s like people going to space.”
His next project involves writing the screenplay based on the life of Kurt Calabrese, who was raised in a culture of violence and conflict by his father, Frank Calabrese Sr., a hit man for the Chicago mafia. The FBI knew Frank Calabrese Sr. was a hit man but couldn't prove it. Federal agents pressured Kurt and his brother, Frank Jr., to cooperate. Kurt refused, choosing instead to serve a two-year sentence for racketeering along with his father and uncle. However, his brother, Frank Jr., wore a wire against his father, resulting in Frank Calabrese Sr. implicating himself in 13 gangland murders.
Kurt’s personal life was also affected when he married the granddaughter of feared mob boss Angelo “The Hook” LaPietra, an act of defiance that put his life at risk.
“I'm terribly excited to have this as my follow-up to Black Mass, Mallouk says.
Although it would be terrific if he were to win an Oscar for Black Mass, Mallouk ultimately has a different goal.
“I want to be that kind of writer where audiences go, ‘Oh, I’ve just seen a Mallouk,” he says.